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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian: Newspaper Records by Ryan Taylor, revised by Susanna de Groot, PLCGS. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Introduction To Newspapers In Genealogical Research
Canadian newspapers are an important source of genealogical information, not only hard date and place information, but also background material which will add to the interest of your family history, and also may supply hints which will lead to other resources.
Keep in mind whenever you are using newspapers in genealogical work, that there is a great deal of specialised vocabulary used in these publications, either in reference to parts of the newspaper or in reporting the news. These words should not intimidate us, as we can easily determine how they are being used; many of the terms will be explained as we go along. Also, researchers should always ask themselves what information is being offered in any item. It may not always be obvious how much we are being told.
Since much newspaper research is done in libraries and archives, it would be good to start by mastering the library vocabulary for these types of publications. We are familiar with the ordinary word ‘newspaper’ and this is also used in libraries. They also use ‘serial’, an umbrella term for publications which come out from time to time, perhaps on a regular basis (weekly, monthly) but perhaps irregularly also. They always look the same, and have the same purpose and name.
Newspapers are a kind of serial, as are periodicals, which we usually refer to as magazines. Libraries receive a great many periodicals, some popular (such as Time or People) and others quite academic (such as The Queen’s Quarterly).
The term ‘journal’ is often used for these academic periodicals, but in the past it was applied to newspapers, and has also been used as a synonym for periodical. In the genealogical world, periodicals are often divided into newsletters, for more ephemeral publications, and journals, for publications with longer articles.
There is no clear line between the two, and a great many genealogical newsletters contain lasting information which researchers will want to consult decades after publication.
All of which is confusing. Basically, remember that libraries use ‘periodicals’ and ‘serials’ for these titles, and may also use ‘newspapers.’
A periodical is published from one date to a later date. This time period is called a ‘run’ and the copies of the periodical owned by a library are called its ‘holdings’. So, if a library owns all the published copies of a periodical, we say, “They hold the complete run.” These two terms are common phrases you should know.
A Cultural Barrier
One of the great difficulties genealogists face in using records such as old newspapers is the cultural barrier which exists between ourselves and the past. Our ancestors did things differently and thought differently then. If we interpret their records using our own points of reference, we will make errors, either of fact or of understanding. Trying to see the documents as our forebears did will help us to create family histories which are richer in detail and which will be able to mediate between history and our present-day readers with confidence.
For this reason, there is a great deal of historical background or explanation included in this volume. Interpretations of vocabulary or of historical customs in this text are meant to help researchers understand what they are reading in the newspapers they find.
Use of Newspapers
Newspapers are often either underused or misused by researchers. Why is this? First, even weekly newspapers, published over many years, present us with a massive amount of material to work in. People find the prospect daunting and feel they do not have the time to spend on it. Secondly, finding the appropriate newspapers to work with may not be obvious or easy to accomplish. We may all wish to wait until someone else does the necessary indexing.
As with so many genealogical records, however, there is a great deal of satisfaction in doing the research, not only in finding the data about our family but also in the historical understanding which results from this up-close view of the past which contemporary documents afford us. And best of all, we will almost certainly make discoveries about our family which we did not expect, some of them opening further avenues for research.
The importance of the local newspaper cannot be over-emphasised. For many, the newspaper was the only reading matter which came into the house, and even for those who did not read, they might access the information in the paper by having it read to them. It is less likely that anyone read books aloud to them.
Newspapers are voices of the past which speak to us directly. Small-town newspapers, in particular, were the vehicles of people who had religious and political convictions, and the newspapers gave them a platform through which to air their ideas. They could also write about any person or event which interested them, giving their own opinions on the subject. We may have been taught about the virtues of ‘objective’ writing in school-day English classes, but much of journalism, past and present, is loaded with the personal feelings of the writer. The advantage to the researcher is that the highly-coloured writing provides us with a more detailed glimpse of the past, perhaps of our own relatives, and events in their lives.
This kind of personal writing also has an intimacy, the voice of the long-dead writer speaking directly to us, which is enticing to read. The 1886 Edmonton Bulletin for example has a familiar and intimate tone as if the editor was sitting in the next chair, chatting to us. It also has the assumption, a small town characteristic, that you know what he is alluding to without his explaining in full. Thus, the researcher finds the experience to be especially pleasurable.
In the 26 November 1881 issue of the Edmonton Bulletin there is an account of a church social to welcome the new Presbyterian minister. It consisted of a tea and spread of food, and entertainment in the form of recitations and songs. The report ends, “...was followed by ‘Duncan Grey’ by Mr. Petrie. That such a piece was permitted to be sung in such a place on such an occasion reflects little credit on either the management, the performers or the audience. It was derisively encored.” This outspoken comment on a church function would not be found in our more genteel day, and it whets the appetite to know what it was about ‘Duncan Grey’ that was so inappropriate, and whether Mr. Petrie was a racy character or had merely blundered in offering this song. Any relative of Mr. Petrie’s would want to investigate further.
We all know about the birth, death and marriage announcements, as they are printed today and perhaps through some research in other eras also. What about the unexpected information mentioned above? A 1912 issue of the Orono News disclosed that Harold Lunn had a sore ear, the result of having stuck a pencil in it and the end coming off. He had visited the doctor and was on the road to recovery.
Although this does not provide any hard genealogical information (beyond the fact that the family in question was living in this town at this time), it does provide an interesting story to use in the family history. It may also answer a question about why grandpa was a little deaf in his old age.
The genealogical researcher should not dismiss any trifle of information which comes to hand as unimportant or of no interest.
If you are dealing with the history of a famous person or well-documented family, you can afford to be choosy about which data you keep or use. Most of us, however, are descended from people whose mark on the world was made at a less noticeable level. In that case, we are probably grateful for any scraps that come our way. Thus a researcher looking for information about Harold Lunn may well find that the pencil in the ear story is a gem to be kept, not discarded as uninteresting.
The Newspaper in the Community
As pioneer settlements were established, some connection with a newspaper followed not long after. Just as we turn to CNN or the local news each day to find what is happening in our world, the pioneers wanted to know what was going on near them. At first, they would probably depend on a paper from some already-established town, perhaps at some distance.
But once their town came to have the population to support a printing office and newspaper, there would be some enterprising journalist ready to start it up. The presses would constitute a considerable investment and it may be difficult to see how a small-town newspaper was economically feasible, but no matter. They did exist, even if for only short periods of time, and are there waiting for us.
Small-town newspapers in the nineteenth century contained the following sorts of material:
- local politics
- national and international stories
- other local information
The advertising was the most important for the proprietors, because it paid the rent. The extent of the international stories will depend on the editor’s interests. It may be startling to find a discussion of events in Kraków in a small paper in Saskatchewan in 1911, but if the editor has connections in Poland, naturally he will air his views. It may be that international stories reflect the ethnic makeup of the community, as well.
National news, of the kind we still hear, will have some place, also. However, both the national and international stories will interest the genealogical researcher least of what they find in newspaper searching. Few things are more dry and tedious than day-to-day politics of the past. The other stories—local politics and local news items—will provide more interest. The political stories may well contain references to our ancestors, even if they were not politicians themselves. They may have expressed views on the issues of the day, or may be named as being affected by events. The news items may well be about someone we know, such as the pencil in the ear above, and researchers will want to save those. In the remote towns of the pioneer era, people’s worlds were more restricted than ours, when we have connections with Caribbean islands, New York, Toronto and Buckingham Palace every day.
The people whom the pioneers knew best, and were most interested in, were their neighbours, and so the news items about those people in the paper were of prime concern to them.
The newspaper was the voice of the community, telling residents about what concerned them and, for us, recording the happenings. Newspapers in the past did not consciously act as historical repositories—their concern was to present today’s news for today’s consumption. By the following day, the newspaper was being used to wrap up potato peelings or to light the stove.
Today’s newspapers may be more self-conscious about their historical role, but they still see themselves as primarily reporting the day’s events for immediate use.
So, when we read old newspapers we are hearing about life as it was lived, day by day. Stories may well be less complete than we would want, because both reporter and reader had an understanding of the background of events and people which we do not.
Also, we may be following a trail of events over days or weeks, and find the conclusion is missing. Perhaps the editor tired of the story, or it was so well known, printing it was not deemed necessary. The present-day researcher misses out.
Perhaps that is part of the fun of reading old newspapers. The researcher is caught up in a series of events in the same way we are now, watching a famous murder trial unfold through the reports of daily sessions.
All the better if the story has some family connection, but be prepared: when you start reading old newspapers, you inevitably start reading things quite outside your normal interests, simply because they are so fascinating!
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian: Newspaper Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at email@example.com
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.